Lost in Translation: Selecting a Translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies

Known as one of the greatest German-language poets, Rainer Maria Rilke is most renown for his Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies) and Die Sonette an Orpheus (The Sonnets to Orpheus), and is recognized for lyrical and poetic syntax and diction, much of which is affected by which translation of his work one reads. He wrote extensively about human nature and the individual's place in the world, the dichotomy of being present in modern society while maintaining oneness and a self-imposed identity. Born Rene Maria Rilke, in Prague in 1875, Rilke was treated by his mother as if he were a girl until he was nearly five years old, after which he attended Military Primary School from 1886-1890, which is potentially why the ideas of gender and identity are major themes throughout his work. He published his fist work, Life and Songs: Pictures and Notes from a Diary, in 1894, at only nineteen years of age. From October 1905 - May 1906, Rilke acted as secretary for the artist Auguste Rodin, and then spent the majority of the rest of his very short life traveling and writing (Bauer ix).

The Duino Elegies, written in the winter of 1911-1912 (but not finished until 1922), were composed while Rilke was living at Duino Castle, on the Adriatic Sea. He was a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis- Hohenlohe (1855-1934), and the Elegies are therefore dedicated to her, in gratitude (Mitchell 549). The Duino Elegies have been translated over twenty times into English. While most seem to carry the same connotation, the subtle differences among translations prompts debate between Rilke scholars.

For example, the opening lines for the first Elegy are all slightly different from one another:

“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies? (Mitchell 331)
“If I cried out, who/ in the hierarchies of angels/ would hear me?” (Barrows/Macy 31)
"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic / orders?" ( Leishman/ Spender 197)
"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic / hierarchies?" (Ernest)
"Who, if I cried out, would heed me / amid the host of the Angels?" (Behn)
"Who of the angelic hosts would hear / me, even if I cried out?" (Boney)
"WHO, if I cried out, might hear me-- / among the ranked Angels?" (Cohn)
"If I cried out / who would hear me up there / among the angelic orders?" (Young)
"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions / of Angels?" (Gass)

As evidenced by this differing of translation, the meaning of an entire line, and therefore the entire poem and poetic collection of Elegies may be altered. It stands, then, that a translation is the most essential aspect in choosing how to read Rilke. When interviewed, an 18 year old American student, Lily Galzerano, fluent in German, translated this first passage of the first elegy:

Who, when I scream, hears me, in the angel's orders? It sets itself. It takes one of me quickly, on the heart. I forego the power of his being. Then the beauty is nothing other than the awful beginning which, we still, in the moment carry and so admire. It was left and disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is awful. And so I hold myself back and swallow the call of my dark insides. Oh, with whom will we enjoy what we need, not angel, not human, and the knowing animals who noticed that we are not authentically at home in the interpreted world. It stays with us, a tree on the slope, which we may see every day, over again. It remains: the street of yesterday and something to offset the truth of the habit of being at ease. And she stays and doesn't go. Oh and the night, there is night. When a wind full with outer space, on the face. Who stays, with whom, she stays not. The first, plain. With whom does it not stay? Which with the solitary hearts stand before us encumbered. Is it lovingly easy? Oh they keep using themselves to hide each other. Do you still not know? Something of the poor and empty to the rooms there, we breathe the air without the poor who are empty. To the room there, maybe the bird or Birds with infinite air fills with inner flight. (Galzerano)

Here, the reader is subjected to the type of translation a "layman" with a fluent understanding of German would read. The simplest form of the language in a literal, non-poetic form. In having this translation done by a young person, a colloquial version of the language is used, one without a background in advanced poetry, and devoid of any pretension or poetic expectation, provides a bare-bones comparison to the lyric translations which seem to take some linguistic liberties.

The almost elementary diction in this translation breaks the pulp of the poem down into easily digestible chunks. "Birds with infinite air fills with inner flight" in Galzerano's translation is read as "Birds will feel in their flight how the air has expanded" in Barrows and Macy's translation, and in Mitchell's "Perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying." Since every translation is an interpretation of the English version of Rilke's figurative speech and abstract language, the reader is always subjected to a small part of the translator's opinion and feelings about the specific poem.

The First Elegy in particular has a weighty connotation, and each translation runs the risk of gross misinterpretation. According to Rilke, In a letter to his Polish Translator, “Affirmation of life-AND-death turns out to be in one of the Elegies. .. We of the here-and- now are not for a moment satisfied in the world of time, nor are we bound in it; we are continually overflowing toward those who preceded us, toward our origin, and toward those who seemingly come after us. In that vast “open” world, all beings are - one cannot say “contemporaneous,” for the very fact that time has ceased determines that they all are" (Mitchell 550). Yet many of the translations contradict one another, betraying a translator's more religious spin on Rilke's simple discussion of death compared to a more subtle interpretation: True, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer, to use no longer customs scarcely acquired, not to interpret roses, and other things that promise so much, in terms of a human future; to be no longer all that one used to be in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay aside even one's proper name like a broken toy.(Schwarz 201)

In some portions of the first Elegy, Rilke acknowledges the impermanence of human existence, and therefore himself and his words: "Strange, not to go on wishing one's wishes. Strange,/ to see all that was once relation so loosely fluttering/ hither and thither in space" (Schwarz 201) In a letter from Princess Marie, she explains the provocation for the Duino Elegies, according to Rilke: "Then, all at once, in the midst of his thoughts, he stopped; it seemed that from the raging storm a voice had called to him: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?" He stood still, listening. "What is that?" he whispered. "What is coming?" Taking out the notebook that he always carried with him, he wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed themselves by without his intervention. He knew that God had spoken" (Mitchell 549) Since Rilke's style is so complex, a prolific range of diction and syntax is offered in the translations of the Elegies.

Some translators, such as Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, used their translations of Rilke's Book of Hours to aid in their translation of the Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies, and found many underlying similarities. "The acceptance of impermanence deepens our experience of the natural world. The knowledge of our essential transience leads us to identify with all embodied things and frees us from isolating efforts to hold aloof from the physical realm" (Barrow & Macy 12). The complexity the composition of the elegies makes the task of translating even trickier. No translation parallels another with regard to Rilke's spiritual involvement or to what degree he was speaking to or writing about "God" or simple to a higher spiritual power. Many of the references do draw inspiration from the human condition and to what extent humans are in control of their own destiny.

However, according to C. F. MacIntyre, in the introduction to his translation, "Rilke seems always to have needed a spiritual prop, as a morning-glory vine drapes itself around a pump-handle overnight.... Rilke re-creates many of the earlier objectively treated poems of [his earlier volumes]: gardens, fountains, temples, dogs, children, beggars, trees, figs, pitchers, and rings, but now they are all used figuratively, as symbols." Often, Rilke even discusses the difficulty of interpretations of words himself, as in this passage from the Ninth Elegy: Since the traveller does not bring a handful of earth from mountain-slope to valley, unsayable to others, but only a word that was won, pure, a yellow and blue gentian. Are we here, perhaps, for saying: house, bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit-tree, window – at most: column, tower......but for saying, realise, oh, for a saying such as the things themselves would never have profoundly said. Is not the secret intent of this discreet Earth to draw lovers on, so that each and every thing is delight within their feeling? (Schwarz 231) This question, are we here for saying... for realizing we speak of things in a way that they would never speak of themselves? Do we assign meaning simply by assigning words? And what, then, happens if this assignment of words goes awry?

Rilke seems to think that words only metaphorically represent emotions, experiences, and people, and therefore, if words are the only representation of something, that thing is constantly reincarnated as different variations on a theme, or translations of the entity. Since literary and poetic translation involves such deep and involved interpretation, the translator's position, then, is to evaluate all aspects of the poem. It follows, then, that each translation represents the translator's view on the poet's sensibilities: voice, diction, imagery, figures of speech, sound, form, symbol, allegory, allusion, myth, and theme are all variable on translator. It would seem that any translations too far outside of the box would not join the ranks of well-respected interpretations, but of the twenty-plus well-respected translations of the Duino Elegies, the interpretations run the gamut.

"Poetry is what is lost in translation," wrote Robert Frost, and it stands to reason even more so when the poetry is written in another language. German itself is a complex language. Americanized words like Doppelgänger, literally double-goer, Gesundheit, literally health, Kindergarten, literally children's garden, and Poltergeist, literally noisy ghost; have been appropriated into the English language. However, words such as Schadenfreude, or joy from pain (literally harm joy) represent complex and combined human emotions and experiences which have no real or literal translation into English. These words, then, have to be broken down to their root and analyzed from syllable and root word up. Much of Rilke's writing in German is complex and layered, according to an interview with Lily Galzerano. "He uses all of these strange words which seem to mean one thing, when in context, they mean another. It's almost like he's trying to trick the reader." Rilke may have not had the intent of "tricking" the reader, but it seems like a poet of such caliber had no qualms about his own style and legibility. He was a conduit through which his work moved, and claimed to have little control over the composition of his poems: "Certainly I have no window on human beings. They yield themselves to me only insofar as they take on words within me, and during these last few years they have been communicating with me almost entirely through two forms, upon which I base my inferences about human beings in general" (Mitchell 552).

Rilke lived for the true understanding of of human nature. "I lived for others while life lasted; now, after death, / I have not perished, but in cold marble I live for myself / as if in death-spasms for the first time bitten into the fruit of life" (Mitchell 553) and seemed to revel in his place as a vehicle for this dialog. Unfortunately, as he died so young in life, his words were only translated in life by a Polish translator, who died before the common era of English translators. It is, then, the responsibility of each translator to represent Rilke to the best of their academic ability, while entertaining that Rilke was a lover of human nature, and possibly anticipated the ongoing dialog regarding the meaning of his work. As he was so preoccupied with the meaning of life, it would probably please him to know that translators have argued over his intent. In reading the Elegies, then, it is important to remember that each translation carries varying weight with regard to particular subject matter.

While Mitchell tends to avoid God, Gass revels in spirituality, Leishman and Spender write a more dry, academic version, Barrows and Macy play with the imagery and delicate language. The reader, therefore, carries the responsibility of choosing a translation that suits them, while keeping an awareness of other interpretations close at hand. There is no true comprehension of the Duino Elegies but that which occurs within the reader.


Works Cited: Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna. In Praise of Mortality, New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. Bauer, Arnold. Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1972. Galzerano, Lily. Personal Interview. 1 May 2011. MacIntyre, C.F. Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke. Berkeley and Los Angeles California: University of California Press, 1997. Mitchell, Stephen. Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: The Modern Library, 1995. Schwarz, Egon. Rainer Maria Rilke: Prose & Poetry, translated by J. B. Leishman & Stephen Spender. New York: Continuum. 1984. "Rilke, Rainer Maria (1875-1926)." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Thomson Gale, 1998. NA. General OneFile. Gale. Newburyport Public Library. 4 May 2011 "Rilke, Rainer Maria." The Columbia Encyclopedia. The Columbia University Press, 2000. 32772. General OneFile. Gale. Newburyport Public Library. 4 May 2011 "Rainer Maria Rilke." So You'd Like to Think Like a Poet, n.d., n. pag., 3 May, 2011.